A middling-but-dangerous Texas team blew the proverbial doors off West Virginia's assumptions it would merely waltz into the home arena and win. And to flirt with an over-reliance on wordplay, if the Mountaineers indeed want to dance at a high level, such a performance can't be repeated.
It isn't that West Virginia can't miss shots, start 1-of-11 from three-point range or even be outscored at the foul line. It's that it cannot couple that trio, or any others, with the absolute lack of mental focus and effort shown against the Longhorns. WVU was lackadaisical from the tip, and it immediately showcased itself in the form of misfires in eight of the first nine foul shots. The literal "free throw" from 15 feet away from the bucket best surmises the plight in this game.
It's an unchallenged attempt at the basket from an even closer look than the 16 to 20-foot range - aka the midrange jumper - that the NCAA average says is made 32 percent of the time. The average free throw percentage? Approximately 69 percent, which has been the de facto medium mark since the 1960s. Over the last 50 years, the season average percentage has dropped as low as 67.1 percent, but never topped 70 percent.
West Virginia halved that stat, sinking just 8-of-23 from the line for a 34.8 percentage. It was the 24th-worst percentage from the foul line in school history, and the second-worst in the Bob Huggins era dating to a 2012 game against Notre Dame in which WVU made one of its three free throws. Of any game with at least 10 free throws shot, it was the worst percentage a 4-for-17 performance against UNC-Greensboro in 2002.
The stats are fine, but how do they tie into what Huggins termed a surefire failure to properly prepare mentally? The coach noted that every game in which he has felt his team wasn't mentally focused, it has missed free throws at a greater rate than normal. It makes sense, the lack of focuse directly correlating with something that takes just that, and not a lot else. As Huggins said, the shots weren't challenged. His team wasn't forced into the errors.
And yet West Virginia didn't just miss them, it shanked them a foot to the right of the rim, right off the backboard, and at times appeared as though it would rather have not even been at the line.
"I have always thought as long as I have done this that if you miss easy shots and you can't make a free throw, you are not mentally into what you are doing," Huggins said. "We weren’t mentally into what we were doing. You can’t start the game 1-for-9 from the free throw line. You can’t shoot wide open shots that didn’t hit the rim. We shot three or four wide open shots in the first half that didn’t even hit the rim. They were wide left.
"That’s hard. I can go out there, and I am an old man. I am 62 years old, and I swear to you that I can go out there and shoot a 1,000 shots if my shoulder would hold up. I am not going to miss one that is two feet wide left. There wasn’t anybody around them. It wasn’t like they were pressured into it. I had to stop practice (Tuesday) because it wasn’t going to help any. We weren’t doing anything other than creating more bad habits. They weren’t into it. We weren’t into it."
The question is why. Huggins said he felt the issues "creeping in" to some of the practice sessions, when players were arguing with coaches as to what was a foul. After starting 15-1, and topping three straight road teams followed by consecutive victories over Oklahoma State and No. 1-ranked Kansas, the Mountaineers collectively felt like they didn't have to truly play to win. Everybody, as one coach has noted, wanted to win the game. Nobody wanted to play the game.
"I told them that I think their attitude has such an unbelievable effect on life," Huggins said. "People with bad attitudes are not successful. People who are unenthusiastic don’t advance in their chosen profession, if they have one. Life is about attitude. Charles Swindoll said that it can destroy a church, a family and a company. Your attitude has an effect, and that’s what I talked to them about.
"I think it’s one of the greatest quotes of all time. We have it hanging up in our locker room, and most of them have never read it before. That’s what I talked to them about. It’s basketball. You have to rely on your teammates. You can’t do it by yourself. You can have a bad attitude when you play golf or tennis. That’s just you. It doesn’t affect other people."
So there are easily recognizable factors in determining if the Mountaineers are showing up to compete in a given game. But what are the keys to preventing such performances in the first place? The short answer is there really isn't. The vast majority of NCAA teams are going to have a bad game or two each season. Upsets, of late, have seemed the norm. Top ranked teams hold the mantle for nary a week before being unseeded. What Huggins and the coaching staff are trying to do now is take this example, this outlier - and that's truly what it has been this season - and use it as motivation and an example of how said attitude can affect so much of the physical performance.
"What is it, mental is to physical as nine is to one?" Huggins said. "We just weren’t in it mentally. That’s not how this group has been. They have been very enthusiastic. They have been very coachable."
And it seems of now they'll get back there. What the next handful of games, starting with the road contest at Texas Tech on Saturday, will reveal is whether this team will settle for what it has already accomplished, or continue to strive for more.
"Success is hard to handle for some people," said Huggins. What's even harder for true winners? The lack thereof.